Outgoing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer may have egg on his face when it comes to missteps like Windows Vista, but he has no regrets about what he saw as his real job at Redmond: pulling in profits.
"How do you make money? How do you make money? How do you make money?" Ballmer bellowed in a new interview with Mary Jo Foley for Fortune magazine. "That doesn't mean nobody else ever thought about it, but 'How do you make money?' was what I got hired to do. I've always thought that way."
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Given that focus, how successful was Ballmer during his tenure as CEO? Very, to hear him tell it.
"In the last five years, probably Apple has made more money than we have," the outspoken exec told Fortune. "But in the last 13 years, I bet we've made more money than almost anybody on the planet. And that, frankly, is a great source of pride to me."
Ballmer joined Microsoft in 1980 and became Bill Gates's handpicked successor as CEO on January 13, 2000, when Gates stepped down to become the company's chief software architect.
Worryingly to some, Microsoft's closing stock price was actually higher on Ballmer's first day as chief exec than it is today, while rivals such as Apple and Google have seen the value of their shares soar into the triple digits during the intervening years.
But Redmond's stock has split no less than eight times during Ballmer's tenure, compared to Apple's three splits throughout its entire history. And Microsoft has paid regular dividends to its shareholders since 2004, while Google does not and says it has no plans to start.
Microsoft disappointed financial analysts with its revenues for fiscal 2013, but only because they set their sights high – in fact, Redmond's 2013 sales set a new company record. And both revenues and profits were up for its most recent quarter, despite Microsoft's struggles to capture a meaningful share of the mobile device market.
Ballmer attributes his successes at Microsoft to being a hands-on manager who required detailed business justification before launching any new products into the market.
"I've always had the unique, valuable perspective of being on the front line selling, working with our partners," he said, "because in some senses your ability to understand how to make money is heavily shaped by what you think people will pay for, in addition to what it costs to get things done."
He also takes credit for settling various lawsuits in which Microsoft was embroiled when he took over as CEO, in addition to driving the company to sell more products into the enterprise.
"I would say as recently as about 2007 or 2008, we'd still have people who would say we weren't an enterprise supplier at all," Ballmer said.
What's more, he said, making a play for the living room with Xbox was something else for which he was "accountable," even though he didn't directly lead the effort.
But as much as Microsoft continues to expand into new markets, Ballmer admits that Microsoft is in a different place than it was in earlier decades, something that his successor will have to confront.
"We've gone from being a complete leader to a leader and a challenger, both in the same body," Ballmer said. "And when you're a challenger, you do have to pick and choose and be more focused."
You can read Foley's full profile of Ballmer, which is expected to be his last in-depth interview as Microsoft's CEO, here. ®